Retro review: A Feast for Crows

Review originally published on LiveJournal in October 2005.

I’ve been putting off writing anything about the latest installment of A Song of Ice and Fire, largely because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. However, if I don’t put my thoughts down now I’ll forget them, so here they are – spoiler-free but opinionated, so safely behind a cut tag.

It’s been a long wait for A Feast For Crows, but a romp through the first four (or three, depending on what edition you have) volumes in September was quite enough to set my teeth on edge with frustration that I had a few weeks yet to wait before I found out what happened next. A little misunderstanding with Amazon delayed my reading frenzy another four days, by which time you can imagine just how much fan-girl anticipation I was suffering from.

The volume itself is handsome: big, thick and a lovely dark red. However, we’re not supposed to judge books by their covers, so on to the contents… It is almost immediately obvious that Mr Martin has chosen to vary his approach a little. We were warned in advance that only half the storylines would be reflected in Feast, and this is true – although I was pleasantly surprised to find that Arya had made the cut. Other than our cat-chasing ragamuffin, however, the action focuses exclusively on the South.

The choice of focus is the first surprise: not in terms of location, but in terms of character. It was safe to assume from the way in which we left her in A Storm of Swords that Brienne of Tarth would become a signature character and gain her own spotlight. Sure enough, we join her in her (to be honest rather dull) search for Sansa Stark. I am keen to know whether we really leave her at the end of Feast where we seem to have done – if so, there’s a big rant to be had about this storyline (as not only dull, but a pointless waste of pages). However, I’m giving Mr Martin the benefit of the doubt. There may be more going on here than meets the eye (that is to say extended descriptions of how unpleasant it is to travel in the rain).

On the other hand, it was an outrageously pleasurable surprise to find we are now also to be treated to the inner thoughts of Cersei Lannister. The wicked stepmother queen of fairytale lies, seduces and murders her way through the novel as she has through those that preceded it – and it’s a lot more fun when you can watch her do it first hand. Cersei was the only character, in the end, who actually had me squeaking aloud with excitement. She’s a bad bad woman, and her own worst enemy. I love characters like this. Those with moral qualms should prepare to be outraged.

In the Stark camp we have the two sisters. Arya arrives in Braavos to learn the meaning behind the phrase valar morghulis. If she is slightly less fun than in previous installments, it is blindingly obvious where she is going and it will be worth the wait. Sansa, meanwhile, is growing up under Littlefinger’s roving eye, allowing us to learn a little more about the small man’s big plans. There is a lot of mileage in this thread, most of which is yet to be explored – again, don’t expect any major developments here, but it’s a nice snapshot to keep us going.

The decision to focus on southern Westeros cuts out most of the surviving male characters, leaving us with Jaime Lannister and Samwell Tarly. Our one brief glimpse of Jon Snow, newly-made Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, has his former friends calling him cold, unfeeling and dictatorial and his faithful Samwell being sent away to keep Maester Aemon from Melissande’s fires. We accompany Sam to Braavos and on to Oldtown with Gilly and babe in tow, and there are continuing hints that the fat lordling may yet find his courage – in desperation if nothing else.

Jaime, on the other hand (oh ho!), is in torment. He disappoints his sister, despises himself and is haunted by Tyrion’s last words to him: “She’s been fucking Lancel, and Kettleblack and Moonboy too for all I know.” This is one of the most rewarding storylines, as Jaime seeks to reinvent himself and reaps his reward – to be sent away from King’s Landing to break another vow at Riverrun.

To pad it out, we are treated to a group of new perspectives. And this is where Mr Martin has learned to cheat. Rather than constrain us to a take on the action from a single point of view, he spends much of Feast indulging in one-offs. Every chapter outlining the action in the Iron Islands is told by a different Greyjoy; each chapter in Dorne is likewise unique. I can understand why he has chosen to do it – he feels all of the intricate events are important, and deserve to be explained by those closest to them – but after the carefully-constructed rapport of the first 3 (or 4) books, it simply didn’t work for me.

The great joy of A Game of Thrones was the knowledge that you as the reader were limited by Eddard Stark’s honour. You could not glimpse the truth behind Littlefinger’s mockery, or Varys’ obsequious smile. You could leap to conclusions, you could guess – but you could not know. I preferred the uncertainty of the tapestry this created, and the close relationship it forged with the characters whose point of view you got to share. I would have preferred to see all of the action in Dorne, for example, from Arianne’s point of view – or from her father Doran’s – rather than sharing it between them both and adding in Arys Oakheart (largely to make the rather unnecessary point that these Dornish women are irresistible hussies. Well yes, obviously. That’s why we like them, isn’t it?). Similarly – and this would have been more complicated, given the family politics – I would have preferred a single Greyjoy to tell us of the kingmaking in Old Wyk.

Overall, A Feast For Crows does not take us very far. In fact, many of the storylines converge on a single truth: Westeros is (in various ways and for nefarious reasons) ready for a Targaryen queen to return. Where each volume of A Storm of Swords (assuming you read it in two volumes) had a clearly-defined and edge-of-your-seat climax, however, Feast rumbles along and then stops. The final chapters bring us to difficult decisions and hint at calamities to come, but there is no heart-stopping denouement. Perhaps it is this that left me ultimately unsatisfied. Or perhaps I have too much invested in Tyrion Lannister’s view of the world.

In spite of its shortcomings, Feast has in no way deterred me from reading the next book. The momentum generated in the earlier volumes is enough to survive the occasional mis-step. I am also aware that I tend to get more out of this cycle on a second reading than on the first – so I may well be being overly harsh. Nonetheless, at the end of every other book I would be left gasping to hear what came next for all the characters involved. After Feast, I’ll happily leave all these characters behind to concentrate on Daenerys, Tyrion and Jon Snow in A Dance of Dragons.

Okay, I lie. I’m absolutely humming to read the next installment for the golden twins of Casterly Rock. All hail the Lannisters – villains from the outset, saving the saga through sheer malice at the last.

Verdict: I’d still rather read George R. R. Martin than most other fantasy out there.